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Israel's racist unification law debate gives its politicians an identity crisis

Benjamin Netanyahu and the Joint List hate each other. But by scuppering the unification law, they've suddenly found themselves on the same side
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stands near Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Justice Minister Gideon Saar during a news conference on economy in Jerusalem (Reuters)
By in
Tel Aviv, Israel

Israel’s new “government of change”, as its members like to define themselves, failed in its first major test: renewing the 18-year-old “family reunification law”, which blocks citizenship or residency to Palestinians married to an Israeli.

When MPs voted on Monday in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, only 59 cast in favour of extending the law, two short of a majority.

The blow to the coalition might in fact be good and bad news at the same time. The good news is that the racist and discriminatory measure that disrupts the lives of thousands of couples is legally suspended as of Tuesday night, and families are now free to apply for some status that will make their lives more bearable.

'In my worst nightmares, I never dreamt I would wake up one morning to see Meretz voted for extension of this act. I am happy this racist law failed to pass' 

- Zehava Galon, former Meretz leader

The bad news is that the suspension will actually bring no real change. The future of the families still lies in the hands of the almighty Shin Bet domestic intelligence service and the interior ministry, now headed by Ayelet Shaked from the ultra-nationalist Yamina party.

All other outcomes from this political farce are bad news: to both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. It is a moment of joy only for Benjamin Netanyahu, the self-proclaimed protector of Israel and now head of the opposition.

Year after year he preached that the law is crucial to Israel’s security as it blocks the entry of “terrorist elements”. Yet just this week, he was heard declaring “important as this law is - toppling this government is more important”.

So, having spent years singing the law’s praises, Netanyahu scuppered its renewal on Monday, dealing a blow to his replacement, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Everyone who is not Netanyahu or one of his blind groupies is left with the bitter taste of cynicism. In this game of politics, no lives matter and all norms are blurred.

Many Israelis yearned for the end of Netanyahu’s 12 poisonous years of rule, and a country without an atmosphere of brutal politics, constant social violence and subjugation under a personality cult. But his removal from office last month brought them only a very small portion of what they desired.

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Bennett is the dream replacement of just a tiny minority. His Yamina party won only seven seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament. But his appointment has sent the opposition berserk.

Netanyahu, who still insists on being referred to as prime minister, is on a mission to delegitimise the new government and present it as a real and imminent danger to the very existence of Israel.

“Beware, there are Arab members in the coalition,” is the opposition’s daily message to Israelis, in different verbal versions. Take the Likud party’s Miri Regev, for example, who said in a fiery speech on Tuesday: “It’s the first Palestinian government in Israel. Arafat dreamt - Bennett the crook made the dream come true.”

Strange bedfellows 

But in Israel’s bizarre new political landscape, even Likud can’t escape association with the Palestinian parties they abhor.

As Netanyahu celebrated the law’s failure to pass in parliament, behind him too were Joint List MPs rejoicing. It was certainly one of the weirder moments in Israeli politics.

You may recall it was Netanyahu himself who years ago coined the election slogan “Bibi or Tibi” - an existential choice between bad and good, represented by Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and the Joint List’s Ahmad Tibi. Now that slogan has been replaced morally and visually with Bibi and Tibi together.

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That snapshot was not just a fleeting moment that captured the complexity of politics in Israel in the year 2021: it is bound to become a tool in any future electoral campaign.

The coalition’s defeat does not mark the immediate or imminent downfall of this government. Despite the continuous war of attrition declared by the opposition, the new administration has successful passed a number of admittedly less spectacular pieces of legislation.

And already, the government is working to bring the reunification/separation law to another vote.

On the other side, the opposition is working on a new, quasi-constitutional basic immigration law to replace the reunification act. Both moves are bound to make the lives of Israeli-Palestinian families even worse.

“The new law is to complement our Jewish nation-state law,” Uzi Dayan, Likud MP and former military deputy chief of staff, told Middle East Eye. He was referring to the highly controversial legislation passed in 2018 that enshrined Jewish supremacy in constitutional law.

“The Jewish nation-state law defines the nature of the state; the immigration law will make sure no demographic change will ever threaten it.”

Bennett’s government, still immersed in the consequences of the recent defeat, has not yet formulated a response to this new challenge.

A more complex political landscape

For better and for worse, the recent political farce is an event of real importance.

After years of public discourse reduced to “Yes Bibi - No Bibi”, the complexity of today’s politics - where the government spans ultra-nationalist, centrist, leftist and Islamist parties, and factions from the far-right, ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian communities make up the opposition - long-forgotten issues have emerged and political parties are now forced to re-evaluate their identity.

Islamist party Raam, headed by Mansour Abbas, had so far had it relatively easy. Abbas emerged from the political collisions that ousted Netanyahu as part of the government and the “good guy”, the great Arab hope for the centre-left and still a scheming terrorist for the right.

But within Palestinian society and even within his own party, where two of his MPs ignored his wishes and voted against extending the law, his position is now much more complicated. 

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It is not an issue confined to his voters. The question of whether Abbas is strong enough to impose his doctrine, or whether he is simply the head of four Raam MPs acting as individuals, can decide the future of the coalition.

Meretz, the only party openly defined as “left”, is in real ideological trouble.

Year after year, whenever the unification law was brought before parliament for extension, Meretz MPs voted against it, decrying the legislation as racist. Some of them even petitioned the high court about it.

This week, with some modest modifications to appease their conscience and keep this government alive, they voted for the extension.

The morning after, they woke to this statement on social media posted by the party’s former leader, Zehava Galon: “In my worst nightmares, I never dreamt I would wake up one morning to see Meretz voted for extension of this act. I am happy this racist law failed to pass.”

Speaking to MEE the day after, Galon, now president of the Zulat Institute for Equality and Human Rights, still sounded in shock.

“It felt like a slap in the face,” she said. “This is not just another law, this has been our core value for years. We don’t talk compromise here, we talk surrender.”

She is not the only Meretz member deeply troubled by the price the party is paying for being part of a coalition after almost 20 years in the desert of opposition.

Contortions on left and right

Such dilemmas are not solely the preserve of the left. On the right, too, contortions have been made, by those in government and opposition.

Netanyahu’s Likud, the leading right-wing party for decades, looks quite ridiculous voting against a law it has been promoting for years just to embarrass the coalition. It is easily presented as a party that chose personal interests over national ones.

“The image of the Joint List, Religious Zionist Party and Likud happily clapping having overthrown a Zionist law speaks volumes for posterity. Israel has been strategically damaged,” Minister of Communications Yoaz Hendel, of the right-wing New Hope party, noted.

Now we have rightwingers across camps accusing each other of all manner of alleged crimes. “Selling the country to Arabs”, being “post-Zionist” and “opening the doors to the right of return” that have been thrown around in the last few days.

From that point of view, the unification law’s failure was of great service to Israeli public discourse and political life. Unintentionally, it brought to the fore terminology and ideology that is doomed, outdated and irrelevant. It imposed at least a short debate over what this law really is: a genuine security issue or just demographic racist obsession.

Judging by how the far-right voted, it must be the latter. That is the upside of the mini-drama. It will not bring the downfall of this government; it only forced it to face the complex reality of its existence, with no escape to niceties like, “let us focus on the common denominator and everyday issues”.

These are the everyday issues. And the future of this government? If no major catastrophe occurs, the real decisive moment will be the 2021-2022 budget. That might be the real turning point.

The rest is just the background noise that Israelis hoped to escape from by changing their political leaders. Now they realise they have failed.